Selling fiction : the German colportage novel 1871-1914




Plummer, Jessica

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



My dissertation project investigates the late nineteenth-century German Kolportageroman (colportage novel). Colportage novels, serial novels sold by door-to-door book salesman, constituted an important nexus of influence in nineteenth-century popular print culture. Their connection to other media and genres such as the periodical press and classical drama has, however, not been recognized. My dissertation remedies this by exploring the broader cultural significance of these novels as key in the development of early mass media and culture in Germany. My approach to the colportage novel draws on theoretical notions from media studies and literary scholarship to broaden a literary understanding of the narrative qualities and cultural importance of “cheap literature” and the strategies of modern serialization. The colportage novels’ serialization and their interconnection with the larger media and literary landscape offers a perspective on this literature that contrasts with traditional literary scholarship, which has been largely unable to divorce itself from the idea that inexpensive, mass-produced popular literature is simplistic, detrimental to its readers, and symptomatic of social inequality. In my work, I discovered that the novels had a close, competitive and symbiotic relationship with news, adapting current events into novelizations almost as soon as they occurred. I was also surprised to discover that the novels sometimes adapted canonical works of German literature. Reflection on the contradictory convergences between the news and fiction, high and low, whole and fragment in many of these novels sheds light on this neglected literary form as a kind of literature that was exciting, current and provided readers with much more than merely romance or excitement. An overarching theme in my findings is what I call an “aesthetic of authentication” that seems to be a unifying trait in colportage novels that also links them to observations other scholars have made about nineteenth century popular culture. Authentication strategies were built into the production, marketing and texts of colportage novels, offering readers the pleasure of meditating on details, examining disparate accounts of events, and sifting through “evidence,” which was sometimes supplied in the form of illustrations or other graphic supplements. In the first instance, I examine the fictionalization of current events as an example of the intersection between reportage and colportage. Colportage novels almost kept pace with newspapers, presenting fictional accounts of events like the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) already in 1870. One nineteenth-century publisher suggested that many people subscribed to colportage novels as an alternative to weekly newspapers. Examining colportage novels within the context of the larger media landscape shows how popular fiction and news reporting spurred each other on in terms of setting the public agenda and in creating an appetite for periodicals and serial fiction. In the context of the second topic, I study the unexpected overlap between the traditional canon and colportage novels and the way in which colportage authors engaged with their sources. Rather than slavishly imitating them or simplifying them, the two adaptations I examine show that the novels were active and explicit in dismantling and analyzing their sources, dramatizing literary critique and rendering the source material in an expansive and multivocal way. The novels also expand on these stories with subplots and new characters. Adaptations of canonical literature are evidence that this popular print form employed notions of canon and quality in its narrative and publication strategies, even while it openly flouted inherited notions of authorship and writing. Serial literature, including colportage novels, was a worldwide sensation in the late nineteenth century, but has now largely been forgotten. Book covers with prices in four or more currencies, and illustrations with trilingual captions are evidence of a vast global network of popular literature that was experiencing incredible growth at the turn of the twentieth century. Some colportage novels met with international success, but there were also national niche bestsellers. My project situates colportage novels within a single national print culture, but contributes to a transnational discussion already underway among historians and literary scholars working on other types of serial fiction.


LCSH Subject Headings